“I Came to Bring the Sword: Discerning Moral Authority in times of violence”

sandy hookWhen I sat with over a thousand people in the National Cathedral Thursday afternoon, I became overwhelmed several times during a beautiful memorial service when people of every major faith, ethnic, and socioeconomic group in America gathered in prayer to remember the victims of Gun Violence this year. As a bell was tolled 51 times in honor of those who died in every state in the union (and the District of Columbia), my thoughts lingered on the faces of the 26 who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago in Newtown Connecticut, but also on the disproportionate number of deaths linked to race related abuses of authority and the disgusting recent revelations about the CIA’s torture program.  As a somber cello played, my heart was enveloped with a range of emotions from sadness to frustration to outright anger that our human family was deprived of the light of those victims.  While last weekend also signaled the end of the 113th Congress, America has yet to see a significant national legislative response to these tragedies despite the cries of so many hearts for justice. There is certainly agreement among a majority of Americans that the loss of innocent life due to gun violence is not only tragic but must be stopped. Where there is not agreement is on how we respond as one nation to violence, and upon what authority to we exert violence to counteract violence.

In a time of year when we are praying for peace as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, I felt it appropriate to remind people of one of the explanations Jesus himself gave for his coming, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”  Everything about Jesus’ witness was meant to divide the human family, at least at first. In what will be at least a two part blog series, I will attempt to open up the type of conversation that has scarcely been attempted thus far on the national level. I will set aside the contentious discussion about who is to blame for the tragedies in favor of the more confrontational discussion of what is being communicated by the tragedies themselves. I hope to clarify what constitutes our authority to respond and where is there hope of a constructive response. I hope to communicate where our intransigent Congress can hope to offer recently identified victims of violence that goes beyond guns to torture, unjust war, and police abuses of authority.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ legal authority is put into question. The chief priests and the elders were baffled by this question, and Jesus, sensing the either/or mentality behind their questions, refuses a quick and easy answer in favor of an exploration of the question. He broaches the subject of John the Baptist to explore their understanding of the nature of authority. Is legal authority of human or divine origin? The inability of the legal authorities of the Jewish people to respond with certainty exemplifies what is really at stake when we choose sides in matters of authority. On one side, we could be seen as a liberal person who does not see the need to follow the law, and on the other side we may be seen as a conservative who has little regard for the voice of all the people. Pigeonholing, as it is often called, is ultimately little more than an extension of our own prejudice. We want “either/or” answers that are easy to spin reinforce our pre-constructed narratives because we are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of “both/and.”

Our cultural preference for “either/or” is directly reflected by our media. A somewhat similar scene was present when Pope Francis was asked by reporters of his opinion of how to respond to the group known popularly as ISIS, who reportedly executed large numbers of Iraqi and Syrian Christians. The American media wanted to know if they could get the popular pope to support or condemn war with the so called Islamic State. The Holy Father was forceful in saying that “To stop the unjust aggressor is a right that humanity has, but it is also a right that the aggressor has to be stopped so that he does not do evil,” but he added other clarifications, “I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means.” Pope Francis is with out doubt familiar with Roman Catholic Just War Doctrine, but also aware that matters of war may best be deliberated via collaborative international bodies like the United Nations. He goes further to highlight that the suffering of other religious minorities is on par with the suffering of Christians and that “all are equal before God.” In just that brief statement, Francis gives a very concise, balanced response to a very loaded question and highlights very key elements of a decidedly Christian social teaching. The balance itself was left out of the headlines of much of the major reporting of the brief comments, and with it the balance inherent in any real authority.

The authority of Jesus to speak on matters of violence without hypocrisy stems directly from his lifelong (and life-ending)commitment to nonviolence. Because he accepted a martyr’s death rather than violent revolt, we can have faith in Jesus’ authority when he says, “I say to you offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” or “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” The notion that we all need to rethink exactly what God wants us to do in the face of so called “evil people” is as confrontational a notion as Christianity ever presents us with. In both of these lines, Jesus is attempting to humanize evil people by reminding us that being a child of God requires a response to evil other than retaliation and condemnation. We are asked to confront evil with our other cheek and meet persecution with love. We are told that we do not live in either this world or that other world. Both are one shared world, and God’s responsiveness to us cannot be directly correlated to our level of inherent goodness or justness.

If we have ears to hear when Jesus’ preaches about nonviolence from an internal place of nonviolence, we might just begin to see what it is about his teaching that gives testament to an authority that he has that would flummox the majority of current opinions about the appropriate response to violence. I sense that for most people it is harder to accept that Jesus would ask us not to condemn our persecutors. We might ask, “How can there be justice without affixing blame?” or “How can we stop violence without removing the perpetrator(s) from the equation?” These are valid questions, but they carry with them two foregone conclusion: one person is both inherently and completely wrong (or evil) and justice requires us to root that person out. While the function of the American justice system certainly serves to arrive at those two conclusions, Jesus did not model condemnation in the case of a woman who was caught in the very act of adultery, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” While it would certainly be a contentious (if not cruel) position to approach a victim of violence and tell them that they should not dwell on who did what, I suspect that Jesus’ lack of condemnation makes a different point, namely that condemnation is not essential to healing violence. The account itself indicates that condemnation may well exacerbate violence if it enables good people to suddenly exercise the authority to commit violent actions in the name of justice.

“I have often said … that this question isn’t about our enemies, it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.” He could be talking about any use of violence, but here John McCain (R-AZ) is speaking about the government using torture to gain life saving information. McCain, who himself endured torture as an airman during the Vietnam War emphasized that “even our enemies possess basic human rights” to counter the notion that certain immoral practices become justifiable under the right circumstances. Rooting out the evil people of the world and punishing them is the essence of the impulse for retaliation. Just like the Pharisees wanted to line-up to stone the adulterous woman for her crimes, so too was America ready to do whatever means possible within the law as a response to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.  From this overzealous desire to retaliate for the loss of American life, the Bush Administration launched an Iraqi war deemed “immoral, illicit and unjust” by Pope John Paul II.  Utilizing the arbitrary label of “unlawful combatants,” they further authorized the CIA to utilize so called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” that were not consistent with Common article 3 of the Geneva Convention. If the emergence of ISIS in Iraq is any indicator, perhaps the proper authority is needed before we even begin to heal violence. So what does that authority look like?

Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.” St. Paul describes authority as a “servant of God for your good” that “does not bear the sword without purpose.” Whether we are discussing violence at the micro-level in the case of Sandy Hook elementary or the macro-level in the case of a war against the so called Islamic state, we must consider the importance of proper authority. Who but a just police officer will prevent a shooter from attacking another elementary school, and who but an authoritative international body like the United Nations can authorize a just use of force against an aggressor like ISIS. We depend upon authority whether we admit it or not, but I suspect that a proper Christian authority serves rather than barking orders and dialogues rather than launching air strikes.

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Published in: on December 12, 2014 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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